Lorna Simpson

The daughter of…, 2015
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

The daughter of…, 2015 (detail)
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

Artist Lorna Simpson Returns to Her Favorite Subject—Hair—With Exclusive New Works
Mackenzie Wagoner’s picture
MARCH 31, 2016 3:25 PM

In a video currently playing in the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Nothing Personal” exhibition, two women silently and simultaneously perform their morning rituals, their skin-care and makeup routines and hairstyles providing clues to their social roles, their place and time. The work is by New York–based artist Lorna Simpson, who has spent much of her nearly 40-year career exploring visual identity—namely the language of hair. Take, for example, Wigs, where a long blond tumble of curls hangs bodiless on a white backdrop, nearby a stretch of braid is neatly coiled just below a frothy cloud of disembodied afro; or Twenty Questions, which features four gelatin silver prints of an obsidian bob shining against equally dark skin and the collar of a soft white tank top—between each image, plaques propose interpretations, from “Is she as pretty as a picture” to “or sharp as a razor.”

From the sprays of updos in Stereo Styles to the chronologically organized ropes of braids in 1978–88, Simpson seems to suggest that if we wear our history, it’s on top of our heads. From birth, the texture and color of our hair alone speak volumes about centuries of heritage, while length and style become culturally coded symbols of sex, location, musical preferences, and professions. “Hair is a cipher of identity,” said Simpson over the phone recently, speaking about her fascination with the material. “I had questions about representation and what we learn about the subject.”

They are questions she leaves open-ended. Without a voice and often faceless, Simpson’s portraits instead confront us, the audience, with our own preconceived notions about race and gender as they’re tied to beauty, a theme that became more prominent in her later collage work, in which found photographs of anonymous African American women (and occasionally men) were stripped of their original coifs and surrounded, instead, by swirls of Simpson’s free-form ink paintings that she has likened to Rorschach tests. There, the forward-facing gazes seem to ask, “Who do you think I am?” and “Why?”

Ultra Violet 1, 2015
collage, and ink on paper 14.6 x 18.5 inches (37.1 x 47 cm) unframed 19.25 x 15.4 x 1.5 (48.9 x 39.7 x 4 cm) inches framed

Tulip, 2014
collage, and ink on paper 30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm) unframed 30.25 x 23.6 inches (76.8 x 59.4 cm) framed

Now, her subjects are more liberated than ever. Above, in a new exclusive series for Vogue.com, Simpson has lifted the faces of 12 women from “very mundane” ’60s and ’70s advertisements in Ebony magazine—the culture and politics monthly she grew up with that “informed my sense of thinking about being black in America”—and paired them with illustrations of geological and astrological forms from a 1931 textbook. Stripped of any fundamental context, the women provide no origin story and no identifying characteristics. The geometric shapes replacing their hair weren’t chosen for their resemblance to, say, Nefertiti’s crown or Erykah Badu’s emerald head wrap—references that may spring to mind as you look at them—but rather for the same reason you might cut, color, or change the texture of your hair: simply because, says Simpson, “I thought they were beautiful.”




Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)

Francesca Woodman, Space2, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
Gelatin silver print, 13.7 x 13.3 cm

At the age of thirteen Francesca Woodman took her first self-portrait. From then, up until her untimely death in 1981, aged just 22 she produced an extraordinary body of work (some 800 photographs) acclaimed for its singularity of style and range of innovative techniques. Woodman studied at Rhode Island School of Design, from 1975 – 1979, receiving a grant to spend a year in Rome to continue her studies. Whilst there she produced an extensive body of work and had her first solo exhibition at a bookshop and gallery specializing in Surrealism and Futurism.

Since 1986, her work has been exhibited widely and has been the subject of extensive critical study in the United States and Europe. Woodman is often situated alongside her contemporaries of the late 1970s such as Ana Mendieta and Hannah Wilke, yet her work also foreshadows artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sarah Lucas, Nan Goldin and Karen Finley in their subsequent dialogues with the self and reinterpretations of the female body.


Born in 1958 in Denver, Colorado, Francesca Woodman lived and worked in New York and Italy until her death in 1981. Since 1986 her work has been exhibited widely. Significant solo presentations of Woodman’s work include Francesca Woodman at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2011-12), which subsequently toured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012); Francesca Woodman: Retrospective at the Sala Espacio AV, Murcia, touring to SMS Contemporanea, Siena (both 2009); Francesca Woodman: Photographs at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (2003) and Francesca Woodman at the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain, Paris (1998), which subsequently toured to Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (1998); Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal (1999); The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1999); Centro Cultural TeclaSala, L’Hospitalet, Barcelona (1999-2000); Carla Sozzani Gallery, Milan, (2001); The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2001) and PhotoEspana, Centro Cultural Conde Duque, Madrid (2002). Woodman’s work is represented in the collections of major museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Whitney Museum of American Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Tate/National Galleries of Scotland.




Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, 1980, Gelatin silver print 6 5/16 x 9 7/16″ (16 x 24 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Grace M. Mayer Fund

Untitled Film Still #50. 1979. Gelatin silver print, 6 9/16 x 9 7/16″ (16.7 x 24 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel. © 2012 Cindy Sherman

In fall 1977, Sherman began making pictures that would eventually become her groundbreaking “Untitled Film Stills.” Over three years, the series (presented here in its entirety) grew to comprise a total of seventy black-and-white photographs. Taken as a whole, the “Untitled Film Stills”—resembling publicity pictures made on movie sets—read like an encyclopedic roster of stereotypical female roles inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. But while the characters and scenarios may seem familiar, Sherman’s “Stills” are entirely fictitious; they represent clichés (career girl, bombshell, girl on the run, vamp, housewife, and so on) that are deeply embedded in the cultural imagination. While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.